Navy Diver and Microbiologist Joins Microbe Detectives

Microbe Detectives is happy to announce Grant Schouweiler, a microbiologist from Purdue University and former diver for the U.S. Navy, has joined the team as a Microbiome Analyst. We spoke with Grant about his unique background and future of microbiology in biofuels, water reclamation, and wastewater treatment.

What is your academic background?

I went to Purdue University for a biology degree and much of my undergrad was in microbiology. With all the undergraduate research I was doing, and microbiology courses I was taking, there was a lot of discussion about the human genome project and how DNA sequencing has become much more affordable.

Metagenomics, looking at entire genomes of an entire community of organisms, was becoming very applicable to many industries, including biofuels, water resource recovery and wastewater treatment. I thought that was very interesting because when I was in school, ten years ago, the traditional path for most biologists was academia and research or medicine.

If you were going to make a living, those were the directions you took. I found it kind of ironic that applications that were being taught at the university are very much what Microbe Detectives is doing now. In addition to my undergrad research, I interned with a biotechnology startup, Algaeon, Inc., where I constructed bioreactors and managed large-scale algal cultivation for biodiesel production.

How did your studies lead to biofuels and wastewater?

When I was at Purdue, I would conduct growth experiments, hydrocarbon extraction and refining for biodiesel plus conducted growth experiments on eukaryotic algae for aquaculture, nutraceutical and biofuel applications. I also developed experiments to test applications of microalgae in wastewater biological nutrient removal.

I got tied into wastewater because my undergrad research gave me the idea of using the nutrients from wastewater as a source of nutrients to grow the organisms required in biofuel applications. It was very much experimental, that’s when I first saw a wastewater treatment plant and got to understand how that operates. Just the fact that wastewater is so dependent on microbiology, really triggered my interests, as a microbiome analyst.

lafayette wwtp

During my research at the Lafayette wastewater treatment plant, I was also exposed to anaerobic digesters, another process driven by microbes that can produce low-carbon renewable energy and transportation biofuels. At the time they were flaring the gas, just burning it. The superintendent explained how they were working on actually harnessing the gas and using that energy.

So after you graduated, you joined the Navy Diver Program?

[laughs] I enjoy the sciences, but I also have been fascinated with the underwater world. During high school I would design and build aquariums for people, for gas money. Being a Hoosier boy, I wasn’t around the ocean much, so that was my way of getting a taste of that world. I was also a recreation diver, just for fun.

During my time at Purdue, I had spent a lot of time in a lab, which is not a very active lifestyle and had a revelation, a just-about-to-graduate-college crisis. I realized I didn’t want to be working inside a lab at that point. I was familiar with the Navy Diver and Special Operations program and thought it would be something that I would really love. I wanted to embrace that experience, so I went ahead and joined, and served six years.


What were your experiences in the Navy?

Much of my experience at Undersea Rescue Command (URC) involved developing operating procedures for novel systems, methods and tooling for various phases of submarine rescue that existed nowhere else in the world. It’s a very tricky mission, where creative thinking is required. I was stationed in Hawaii for three years and my first command was at the Pearl Harbor Navy Shipyard, and where I also did assigned duties in Guam. At URC, I had a training operation in Alaska and was with a crew for a search mission in Argentina. We also did a lot of training ops off the coast of California.

diving suit

When I was at URC, training operations often took us down to 2,000 feet. During our missions, I was in an armored dive suit, connected to the surface with a long umbilical. We also used a rescue chamber among other vehicles, and one of them was like a little yellow submarine, funnily enough. The other vehicle was a dive chamber that looked like a large fishing bobber. it was buoyant on the surface, then worked its way down to the submarine to rescue crew members.

underwater vehicle

What interesting things have you seen on your dives?

I have seen pretty cool bioluminescence while diving. It’s completely pitch black when you turn off all your lights on your suit or vehicle, you can see flickering of different organisms at those depths. I’ve also played with an octopus, that was fun… I probably should have been paying more attention to the task at hand, but I can’t say no to an octopus.

Analyzing the Water and Wastewater Microbiome

I think there are so many different applications and ways the technology could go. With the large volume of samples Microbe Detectives has processed in the last eight years, there is enough data now that we can compare clients’ data with similar systems for cross referencing. If a client has an operational issue, a microbiome analyst can benchmark it and compare it to other systems that are running well and see what the differences are and what parameters can be adjusted to get it back on track.

wastewater dna

You don’t see a lot of biologists or microbiologists in the wastewater and water reclamation space, which is ironic, because the entire wastewater treatment process is governed by microbes and the metabolism of different organisms. I do think that looking forward, the industry will incorporate more of the life sciences. This allows facilities to take full advantage of a system’s capacity in a much more cost effective and environmentally beneficial way, using naturally forming microbes to manage all the nutrients that come in and generating biofuels such as with anaerobic digestion.

I’ve seen a lot of superintendents and operators who are trying to push past chemicals and focus on biological nutrient removal. Over the long term it’s very much a cost saver and a perfect opportunity for a company like Microbe Detectives, because the microbial monitoring service can complement any biological nutrient removal system, like biological phosphorus removal and denitrification. Microbe Detectives is the perfect tool to make sure that system is performing optimally.

What do you like to do in your free time?

I’m a big outdoor guy. If I could pick something for exercise it would definitely be hiking or walking a trail. My wife and I have a home on an acre of land with a couple of hundred square feet of flower beds.

I do a lot of gardening, taking care of the landscape, that has been my outlet lately. It’s fun because it has different areas of sun and shade, so I can play around with a lot of different types of flowers. I love it, it’s using biology in a different way.

garden biology